As the year comes to a close

To the Williams Community,

Near the end of my first full academic year here at the college, I am ever more grateful for the warm welcome extended to my family and me and for what I believe all of us together are poised to accomplish for Williams.

I understand more fully now how remarkable Williams students are, both in their academic accomplishment and in the ways they so energetically build and maintain the rich and supportive campus life that helps characterize Williams.

In recent months an extraordinary number of current and recent students have won national prizes and fellowships. Emblematic of Williams students’ involvement with faculty research, Chris Chudzicki ’10 became the fourth Williams winner in twelve years (an astonishing record) of the Leroy Apker Award from the American Physical Society for outstanding research by an undergraduate, while Rob Silversmith ’11 and seven recent graduates earned prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships. Emanuel Yekutiel ’11 won a Watson Fellowship, which he’ll use to study same-sex marriage rights in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Brazil. You can see short profiles of 11 other amazing seniors at

With a year of experience here, I’ve also come to appreciate more deeply the dedication of faculty to their teaching, their scholarly and creative work, and their engagement in college governance.  The consistently high level of thought that goes into improving teaching at Williams—in departments, committees, the Program for Effective Teaching, Gaudino activities—would be the envy of most any college. Meanwhile, the outside academic world continues to honor our faculty’s scholarly achievements. Just this spring, Sara Dubow ’91, assistant professor of history, joined an exclusive group by winning this year’s Bancroft Prize for her book Ourselves Unborn: A History of the Fetus in Modern America, while Susan Dunn, professor of arts and humanities, won the Adams Book Prize for her Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party.

As always, this year has seen the deep and productive engagement of faculty with issues of college governance. Particular attention has been given this spring to fundamental questions, namely reviews and reforms in our committee structure, and thoughtful analysis of our tenure appeal process.  Of special importance, as well, has been the Committee on Undergraduate Life’s exploration of student residential life. Williams benefits immeasurably from having faculty and students so deeply engaged with the college’s operation.

The same goes for our staff, who’ve continued to impress me with their devotion to Williams and their close attention to the challenges and opportunities afforded by the upcoming changes in our administrative organization.  It’ll be great to head into next year with those new structures in place. We should particularly thank Dining Services staff for their continuing adaptation to the new dining program and to those in Facilities who did heroic work in response to the seemingly endless wave of this winter’s storms.

One of the highlights of the arts season was the reinstallation of the galleries of the Williams College Museum of Art, each focused in thoughtful and challenging ways on the idea of “the museum.”  And last week we had the thrill of dedicating in the Science Quad artist Jenny Holzer’s marvelous tribute to the rich legacy of a quintessential Williams figure, Hodge Markgraf ’52, who rendered extraordinary service to the college as professor of chemistry, provost, and vice president for alumni relations and development.

Williams athletics has continued to do us proud, with many highlights throughout the winter and spring seasons, including even more teams heading off soon to nationals. And we now look forward to the continuing leadership of our once interim and now permanent athletic director, Lisa Melendy.

It’s great to think that the Sawyer Library construction will begin shortly.  Before even getting to Williams I became convinced of the importance of this remarkable project to the college.  Getting it back on track was my highest priority upon my arrival last April.  The transformation of our library and IT operations made possible by the new Sawyer will be well worth the several seasons of construction that we face in that part of campus.

We start that work bolstered by the generosity of members of the Williams family and by the return to stability in our finances. Barring another shock in the world’s financial markets, we can expect modest growth in our financial resources, though at a rate well below that which the college benefited from before the global downturn. Nonetheless, the current situation allows us now to think of how best to focus the modest amounts of new revenue that we hope will be available to us.

The relatively strong situation that we find ourselves in has resulted from the hard work of many, including Bill Wagner and Bill Lenhart, who next month end wonderfully productive terms as dean of the faculty and as provost. Their leadership, especially over the time of presidential transition, has served us all very well.

As this academic year draws to an end, it’s not too early to start looking forward to the one to come. While there will be many things that will have our attention, as in any year, there are three areas in particular that I think we’d do well as a college to focus on.

·     Academic priorities: We need to continue to think about the evolution of our curriculum, and to identify our most critical areas of emphasis for future academic investments.  The past decade saw many exciting curricular innovations, especially in the new interdisciplinary programs that have quickly become essential parts of our academic landscape. We have to figure out how to sustain our wonderful curricular diversity, now that the growth in faculty will be quite constrained compared to the decade past.  It is a seeming paradox that despite having one of the very best student-faculty ratios in the country, we feel severe pressures in our offerings to students. To me, this is a sign of healthy ambition—one that we need to explore and act on.

·     Student life: Much of the CUL’s examination of residential life has focused on the experience of first-years. This should continue. The entry system is clearly an important part of the Williams culture, and while satisfaction with that system is generally very high, we know that it’s not universally so for all groups of students—a phenomenon that we need to understand better. We need desperately to focus on the issue of alcohol use by students throughout the college, and particularly as this relates to assuring the safety of women on our campus. I’ve told student leaders that every time we meet to discuss issues of importance to student life that this should be on the list.  And it’s also time to begin planning to refresh our aging stock of student housing.

·     Student Support: Williams has made great progress over the past decade in attracting a diverse student body, along many dimensions.  Now we need to ensure that all members of this wonderful student body can thrive here. We should continue our consideration of the broad arc of students’ academic lives during their time here, including the effectiveness of the ways in which we offer academic guidance.  The depth of our students’ connections with each other has long been a strength of Williams, and we need to give continued attention to this as the makeup of our student body evolves: the extraordinary Claiming Williams program is but one way to ensure that our students gain the maximum educational and social value from their rich collective diversity.  And I’m among those who believe that many of our students would benefit from deeper engagement with our local communities of Williamstown, North Adams and the Berkshires.

This will be a full agenda, but one that I believe follows from our mission to provide the finest possible liberal arts education. Williams has long benefited from aiming high.

I look forward to the events through which we’ll soon send our seniors out into the world we’ve prepared them to serve, and through which we welcome back alumni engaged in that service. I hope the summer will prove refreshing for all, including faculty and staff, whether your responsibilities are here on campus or far away. I’m eager to come back together in the fall and continue the exciting, collaborative work that we can tackle together for the sake of Williams.

Adam Falk